Candice Dowd Barnes is an assistant professor of early childhood and special education at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. She received her doctorate at Argosy University in Schaumburg, Illinois. Here, Dr. Barnes explains that earlier in her career she believed she had to present her qualifications to students in order to gain their respect and the acknowledgment that she belonged in the front of the classroom.
As an African-American professor teaching at a predominately White university located in a southern “Bible-Belt “state, I find the idea that I have to lead with my vitae to justify my credibility disturbing. Having felt the sting of racism in other situations, I was not naïve to the thought that I would perhaps encounter individuals who questioned my credentials or expertise. I was surprised by the insensitive, disrespectful, and frankly, racist statements and conversation from some of my students.
I am a teacher educator. This is important only because I am partly responsible for the knowledge, skills and dispositions these teacher candidates craft. In our degree program, candidates are fortunate to have several field experiences with students from various ethnic, racial, social and cultural backgrounds; and students with varying degrees of disabilities. Therefore, it is extremely important that these candidates are sensitive, culturally responsive, and empathetic and have an authentic awareness of who these children are.
The majority of my students are White females from working to middle-class families, whose first experience with an African-American professor is with me. Certainly, that does not excuse their comments, but it does explain, perhaps, something deep in the psyche of some. For others, I would submit they are not conscious of stereotypical perspectives and biases they internalize and verbalize. For example, there was a student who told a story of her first experience being around African-Americans was during her freshman year in college. This is not particularly surprising. However, what was surprising was her admitting she was “scared.” It reminded me of the infamous scene from John Singleton’s movie, Higher Learning, where Kristie Swanson’s character was visibly uncomfortable in sharing an elevator ride with Omar Epp’s character. I probed her feeling in an attempt to understand where that fear came from. I gathered that much of her knowledge and beliefs about of African-American came from media, and her family. This is typical of most individuals. We are often influenced by our sights and sounds, and greatly influenced by our families. While that is understandable, we often times limit our thinking and understanding when we retreat from seeing the perspectives of others, or cower at the idea of engaging with people who might look, behave, and feel differently.
One another occasion a student told a story in class of how she made every effort to teach her sons to be sensitive and respectful to others. She explained how she made a decision to move them from an all-White school to a school with a little more diversity. According to her, the plan backfired because the two African-American children in the school moved shortly after her sons began attending. It was not until she came to the conclusion of the story that my thinking and listening stalled. In her conclusion, she said, “finally my kids’ school got a Black one.” I immediately stopped and asked, “What do you mean a Black one?” Everyone, including this particular student, became extremely uncomfortable. I was appalled by the insensitive comment.
What do these stories have to do with my leading with my vitae? Well, these stories illustrate the bias, suspicions, and thinking that many have about African-American people in general, but also relate to the disdain some have for African-America instructors and professors. Your credentials, your experience, your expertise, your integrity, in some instances, your authenticity come into question. Therefore, to avoid and lay many of those questions and concerns to rest, I led with my vitae when introducing myself to my students for the first time. I told them about my degrees, how much experience I had, what research I’ve done, as if being hired by this institution was not enough to justify my credibility. It was and is a source of extreme frustration. At times it felt demoralizing.
However, the approach to lead with my vitae was as much about me as it was my students. At times, I became angry with myself and questioned: Why do I feel the need to do this? I wondered if others have a similar dilemma. What role might gender play? Did my Caucasian-female colleagues have this same issue? Did African-American male professors share this concern? I have yet to pinpoint a singular answer. I believe it is a multilayered quandary. Anecdotally, I purport it may be a race, gender, regional, and values issue. Clearly, there are some students who reject the idea of having an African-American professor. These students have deeply rooted beliefs and values instilled in them by their families. Therefore, an African-American professor challenges their current scheme of thinking. They are confronted with a different perspective, a different ideal, and a different vision of a race of people. We do not fit the images that are often portrayed on TV, film, in music, videos, and through social media. They now have a new perspective — a disorienting dilemma that, if they are open to receiving this new information, will transform how they see African-Americans, in particular.
I also believe it is more prevalent in certain regions than others. Having previously taught in large metropolises — Dallas and Chicago; this was not my experience. The biased I experienced in those regions related more to gender and age, than race. That is not to say I did not encounter racism, but it was more covert than overt. More often than not, I was judged on my talents, abilities and knowledge, than the color of my skin.
There is an unquestionable history of racism throughout our southern states. I wonder what one might find if they examined how African-American instructors and professors are perceived by students at predominately White universities in small to midsize communities? I would venture, there might be a higher incidence of students who question the credibility of those professors compared to students at predominately White universities in large communities and cities? Students coming to universities from primarily rural communities might demonstrate a higher degree of distrust and fear of African-American professors, than those from large, urban, or inner-ring suburban communities.
In conclusion, leading with my vitae became a way to manage the questions, slay the doubt, and support my credibility to stand and deliver course content in a university classroom. Recently, I made a conscious effort to refrain from taking this action. Time has, in part, affected the necessity to lead with my vitae. I have a reputation among the student body now. Students pass information along to others, and this has led to an awareness and acknowledgement of who I am. Still, the question remains, how many professors, especially African-American professors, enter their classrooms on the first day and lead with their vitae?